Inclusive Language in the Multilingual Workplace

Using language that doesn’t discriminate against anyone within an organization, and where no one feels marginalized by words and phrases that they see and hear, is an important aspect of any inclusion and diversity strategy today. This also means ensuring that the same is true in all the languages and in all branches of a business or company, wherever in the world they might be.
Inklusive Sprache an multilingualen Arbeitsplätzen

“Words have power, words are power, words could be your power also.”

Mohammed Qahtani

In our last blog about the use of language and localization in the international recruitment process, we underlined how using the most appropriate language will help your company connect to the right candidates. We argued that making sure your company provides multilingual, culturally aware language in job ads and during the selection and interview procedure, will pay dividends in the long run. However, the significance of language in the workplace doesn’t stop with recruitment.

We agree that words do have power. A significant amount of power. Words make people feel comfortable or uncomfortable, proud or ashamed, joyful or upset; words inspire an infinite number of emotions, both good and bad. Although our parents may have taught us that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,’ we now choose to respectfully disagree.

Using inappropriate or just plain wrong language, can be harmful. And in a world where it is increasingly common to work for a global organization and to share a workplace with colleagues of diverse backgrounds, language and using it properly, takes on even greater significance.

As in past posts, we would like to stress our awareness of the many facets to diversity and inclusion, however for the purposes of this blog, our primary focus remains the implications of language use and how it influences our work lives.

The multilingual, multinational workplace

Many of us are adjusting to this shift towards a global community and at the same time seeing the benefits of a multinational, multilingual working environment. Employees from diverse backgrounds bring different perspectives to an organization, which can generate alternative points of view and innovative approaches to business problems. They might be familiar with better practices or technology solutions or they will have a greater understanding of what clients or consumers in their home country want.

Company employees who live in other countries can, therefore, also help create connections with new markets through their local knowledge and cultural understanding. This is turn has the potential to increase productivity and stimulate company growth. Moreover, a global workforce can bring an extra competitive edge to an organization by creating flexibility of recruitment and a larger talent pool. Being bilingual or multilingual has, in itself, been consistently proven to improve mental agility and concentration, and even protect against dementia. Bilinguals perform task-switching more efficiently and have the capacity to better accommodate other ways of thinking. Take these considerable advantages into a working context and they can only mean a greater contribution to a company’s evolution and prosperity.

The benefits of multilingualism are heard to ignore. But this doesn’t mean a business can just sit back and let it happen. For all employees to flourish, the creation of an inclusive multilingual working environment is key and it is the responsibility of the company or organization to nurture a workplace where all employees feel they, and the languages they speak, are valued.

What are the challenges? How are they overcome?

Managing a company of dispersed, multicultural and multilingual staff, can of course, also present challenges. Making sure everyone is heard and has access to communication in the langauge of their choice is not always straightforward.

It can be a significant issue establishing a common company language that all employees speak and understand. It might also be the case that other languages are used for specific projects and in different branches of the organization, while another is used in exchanges with head office. In all these cases, clear definition is vital and establishing a common language shouldn’t mean that others are not catered for.

Employee language competency may also be hard to ascertain. We all tend to make judgements on how well or not someone speaks a language but these are simply opinions and it is never right to make assumptions. It could be that a lack of understanding is the real reason behind underperformance or a seemingly introverted personality.

In all these cases prioritizing communication is key. Actively seeking out the views of colleagues and collecting information on language use and comprehension, are good starting points. Encouraging all employees to engage in language learning can be beneficial for both creating understanding and boosting team morale. Some companies have also introduced language exchange programs, where interacting with colleagues in different languages creates stronger links and cross-cultural awareness. Making sure onboarding or specific training is provided in relevant languages, is also advisable.

Technology can be leveraged increasingly effectively in a multilingual workspace to facilitate communication. Software companies recognize the value of adding language to their platforms and developments in natural language processing and artificial intelligence (AI) mean doing this is becoming easier. Free online translation tools, e-learning programs, internal communication platforms and more, can all offer multilingual options. Common video conferencing tools like Zoom and Teams also now give access to real-time interpreters using in-built apps.

The Human Translation Factor

But as good as AI is, it doesn’t understand human language like we as humans do and relying on it can be problematic. Whilst effective in some areas, machine translation isn’t always a good option.

So, it’s important not to overlook the basic language transfer tool for any multilingual organization – translation. Translating employee materials is essential for an internationally operating business and for this, the best course of action is to use a company specializing in language services – a language service provider, or LSP for short.

Your LSP will be able to offer advice on which HR texts and documents should be translated. The number requiring translation may seem huge but, in many instances, it is a legal requirement to deliver these in the languages of your employees. Offer of employment letter, contract, company handbook, disciplinary and grievance procedure, safety information; these are some examples of what may be needed in other languages and not providing them could be malpractice or considered detrimental to employee wellbeing.

Multilingual Inclusivity

Using language that doesn’t discriminate against anyone within an organization, and where no one feels marginalized by words and phrases that they see and hear, is an important aspect of any inclusion and diversity strategy today. This also means ensuring that the same is true in all the languages and in all branches of a business or company, wherever in the world they might be.

Recent years have seen the work to eliminate gendered, racist and ableist language make significant advances. Where once expressions like ‘manpower’, ‘girls’, ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘handicap’ and ‘normal’ were commonplace, we now use ‘workforce’, ‘women’, ‘folks’, ‘disability’ and ‘typical’. Racist terms and expressions like ‘master/slave’, ‘blacklist’, ‘black sheep’, and ‘sold down the river’ are no longer acceptable. Slowly but surely, we are learning to ask which pronouns people prefer rather than making thoughtless and harmful assumptions.

The relative flexibility of the English language allows us to successfully navigate these disturbing and exclusionary terms and phrases and find alternatives. However, in other languages this is not always as simple and it is often not just a case of translating but also of identifying where the corresponding words could potentially cause offense.

The case of gender in language can be problematic, particularly in 4 of the world’s most spoken and most gendered languages. Hindi, French, Spanish and Arabic all follow similar conventions in that they use the masculine as the default form, revert to masculine as soon as a single male entity is included and derive their feminine forms from the masculine. Gender based languages do not easily offer solutions for accommodating all gender identities, especially where all nouns and pronouns are assigned masculine and feminine articles.

As awareness around using non-sexist and non-binary language has increased so has the movement to find alternative words. Whereas in English using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ is now commonplace, activists in languages like French and Spanish have been obliged to be creative in the search for non-discriminatory pronouns. ‘Ille’/’iel’ in French and ‘elle’ in Spanish have much support but are still to be officially recognized.

Inclusive language is not a luxury

Navigating these ever-evolving language and societal shifts is complex and finding the right solutions in all languages needs a sensitive and thoughtful approach. Language is at the forefront of an inclusion and diversity plan for any organization but pinpointing the problems and finding workable solutions isn’t always easy.

In a recent article localization expert Nataly Kelly shares an example of how HubSpot managed a simple translation problem with an intelligent fix. They avoided the gendered Spanish translation of ‘Ready to jump back in again Nataly?’ with the Spanish translation of ‘Nataly, hello again,’ so avoiding the use of a problematic adjective.

HubSpot has the expertise and resources to manage this problem but many businesses haven’t. That’s why an LSP with a team of cultural specialists, native language experts and highly experienced translators can provide the answers. The language you use in the workplace should take into account all the factors we’ve looked at. Ensuring everyone connected with your company feels included and represented through language is not a luxury, it’s essential.

t’works has the experience and know-how to help your company reach its multilingual objectives. We are trusted by many of the world’s leading brands and we operate worldwide across all sectors. 

We would be more than happy to answer your questions.

Your personal contact

Marie-Laure Vinckx

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